The Possibility of Fewer Shootings?

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Soon after the Aurora murders I argued that the worst part was the shared American knowledge that we'll go through this cycle again. In some other city, with some other setting, and because of some other specific reason why the (probably male, white, in his 20s) killer went mad -- and why no one could have seen this coming ("he kept to himself mainly") but also why everyone should have seen it coming. We'll have the "moments of terror" media recreations, the flowers and testimonials, the flags at half-staff -- and then nothing. After a little while it will happen again.

Many people have written to say this is too discouraging. For what it's worth:

1) Poll support. Ronald Brownstein points out in National Journal that the public opinion landscape might be more favorable to gun-control proposals, from Democrats, than is generally supposed. He offers two reasons:

One is that the key elements of the Democratic coalition, though wavering somewhat since 2000, still preponderantly prioritize restrictions on gun ownership over protecting the rights of gun owners. The other is that support for gun control actually increased during the 1990s, when President Clinton waged and won two pitched battles with the National Rifle Association, and has declined in this decade, when no president (and virtually no congressional leader) has made a case to the public for gun restrictions.

2) Examples. Yesterday one Democratic Senator, Frank Lautenberg, immediately Tweeted out a call for restrictions on high-capacity magazines (and presumably assault rifles) like those used in this attack. At a conference I heard former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell make a similar call, as did Mayor Bloomberg.

Encouraging, yes. On the other hand, none of these people has a tough election ahead of him. (Lautenberg will be 90 when his current term is up; Rendell is out of office; Bloomberg shortly will be. On the other-other hand, Rendell pointed out that the NRA never liked him when he was in active politics, and he still won big.)

Perhaps the most depressing thing to me was that the two men under the most immediate election pressure, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, both avoided using the word "guns" in their condolence statement about the shootings.

3) The bipartisan possibility. A reader who is no pinko writes in with a suggestion:

Wouldn't this be the perfect time for the two Presidential candidates prominently to issue a joint statement--or two identical statements--saying that the the nation is done kow-towing (good Chinese nonword) to the NRA's demands? 

Shooters can vote for whomever they wish, they could say, but neither Obama nor Romney any longer care.  Whichever one of them gains the office will immediately begin to dismantle the NRA's paper fortress, and their administration will get serious about gun control.  Seems to be a splendid opportunity to raise both campaigns to a new level and to, in one small way, decrease the divisiveness throughout the country. 

The shooters can rage, and they will, but I think the country is really sick and tired of this crap.

It's pretty to think so. I hope to be astonished on this point.

4) Don't show a jaded fatalism. A reader in California writes to scold me for pessimism:

Please don't be fatalistic about the idea that we Americans will never change the circumstances that allow episodes such as this morning's terrible shootings in Colorado to take place....

I've been around Berkeley-style lefties by choice my entire adult life, but I come from a family of responsible gun owners. I think the extremely polarized positions on gun rights in this society are a reflection of the degree of toxicity in our political discourse. Now more than ever, voices of reason need to shine a light on the precise issues involved in public policy involving guns, where the obstructions are, and how we might realistically find a way out of the impasse.

I don't buy the line that the problems are all a function of "right wing gun nuts" (or any other blanket pejorative used to categorize a large group of individuals) and therefore hopeless. Nothing is that simple. A new generation has grown to adulthood that, in my experience, is open to critically examining issues without bogging down in ideological assumptions carried over from the past. The last thing they need is our generation proclaiming that nothing can be done.

Politicians aren't going to lead the way because most of them are primarily focussed on their short-term interests in getting re-elected. The media, on the other hand, can potentially step up to the plate and make this the national "teachable moment" that should have happened after the shootings in Tucson last year.

What better time than now, when the gloves are about to come off between President Obama and Mitt Romney? Let's get it out in the open and let the chips fall where they may.
called for restrictions on assault rifles

5) The actuarial pressures. From another reader:

Gun control is such a polarizing issue that I doubt if this latest atrocity will lead to anything concrete. I hope I'm wrong.

To many gun owners, libertarian types and such any gun control, no matter how reasonable, is a step on the road to confiscation. Once it goes that way debate can't happen....

I guess I should point out my bias. I am a gun owner fond of old stuff. I regard guns that use smokeless powder as vulgar. Tonight I'm in the concussion section of the 1812 Overture with my 2.25" Bronze Mountain Rifle. Despite all this I have found attitudes of anti-gunners to be obnoxious. I'm talking about pre-1994 when many Democrats where openly anti-gun. Being regarded as a no-neck yahoo because of my hobbies did not make me sympathetic to them. Condescension and dismissal do not help communication....

I think in the long run gun control will win out. My gun club is mainly old white men. Few children are raised in a culture where hunting and fishing is a basic activity. This is the same demographic trend that is terrifying Republicans and leading to all their voter suppression shenanigans. That can help with a few election cycles but will lose big in the long term.

 I never mean to give in to jaded fatalism, so I will reflect on this again.

Meanwhile, this sample of the insanity of today's "security" thinking.

  • The latest Colorado shooter -- like Jared Loughner of Tucson, Seung-Hui Cho of Virginia Tech, and the countless others whose names we forget after they have done their damage -- could not legally have walked onto an airplane carrying a water bottle, or without taking off his shoes.
  • But he could walk down the street with a legally purchased assault rifle, body armor, and as much ammo as he could lift.

At some point the madness of this disproportion may sink in. To be clear on my own views: I see no reason why a civilian should be allowed to possess an assault rifle like this shooter's AR-15, a civilian version of the military M16, or similar high-capacity weapons. These are for soldiers and others formally authorized to administer deadly force.

And while we're on the "madness" topic, please consider:

  • The lasting distortion in our airport operations and travel "security" rules if these same 12 people had been killed and dozens injured on an airplane. We'd have Congressional hearings, sackings of TSA officials, new inspections and screening machines "to keep us safe," and so on.
  • The military, diplomatic, and cultural consequences if the Batman murderer had happened to yell "Allahu Akbar!" or "Death to America!" before dispatching his victims.
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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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